Thursday, June 5, 2014

Seventy years ago, right now

The "longest day" began seventy years ago tonight, just about as we write these words. On June 6, 1944, Allied forces from the air and sea stormed ashore in France to liberate that country and to open the second front long-promised to our ally and rival, the Soviet Union. Operation Overlord was the greatest amphibious invasion in history up until that moment, and with the invention and deployment of the atomic bomb against Japan only fourteen months later, it became, in all probability, the greatest amphibious invasion of all time and forever.

It is impossible to write about the invasion of France from the soft comforts of today without making it seem banal. It has all been said, and we will leave it to others -- among them, no doubt, our incumbent president -- to wrap themselves in the greatness of that moment soundbite by awful soundbite. If you do not know the history, watch or read -- reading is better, but we no longer order people to read books -- The Longest Day, or your grandfather's diary if you are so lucky to have it. Or read this, the first dispatch of the Associated Press from that morning, and think about how much better journalism was when reporters were on our side:

ON A BEACHHEAD IN FRANCE — Hitler's Atlantic wall cracked in the first hour under tempestuous allied assault.

As I write, deeply dug into a beachhead of northwestern France, German prisoners, mostly wounded, are streaming back. But the Boche still is putting up a terrific fight.

Shells are exploding all over the beach and out at sea as wave after wave of allied ships, as far as I can see, move into shore.

My escorting officer, Sir Charles Birkin, was slightly wounded three times in the first 15 minutes ashore and three men were killed within five feet of me.

Our heavy stuff is now rolling ashore and we not only have a solid grip on the beachhead but are thrusting deep inland.

The beach is jammed with troops and bulldozers for many miles, and now it has been quiet for 15 minutes, which apparently means the German big guns are knocked out.

Our casualties on this sector have been comparatively light.

I landed at 8:45 a.m. wading ashore waist deep in water under fire to find quite a few wounded and some killed on the beach — and Nazi prisoners, very stiff and sour-looking already coming back.

Before embarking we were told there would be 10,000 allied planes attacking today and there is every sign our air mastery is complete. So far not a single German plane has been seen.

The night-long channel crossing also was quiet until the last mile.

German prisoners said Hitler visited this beach two days ago and they admitted they were taken by surprise.

Only a few hundred Nazis manned the beach defenses on this sector. They laid down a terrific machine-gun fire, but were quickly overwhelmed.

As far as I have seen there is no sign of Hitler's vaunted Atlantic wall with its massive concrete fortifications. German artillery deeper inland is very formidable, but the beach defenses are piddling, rifle-slits and strands of barbed wire.

Had it been a football game instead of an invasion on the crest of the free world's hopes, Grantland Rice might have written that first line.

No comments:

Newer Post Older Post Home